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So you want to be a CEO? The journey from headship to system leadership

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Date published 17 August 2020

This is an exclusive extract from the new book ‘Leading Academy Trusts: Why some fail, but most don’t’ by Sir David Carter with Laura McInerney. This extract is from Chapter 2, which charts the evolving landscape of school and system leadership and explores what this means for aspiring multi-academy trust CEOs.

The route map for leadership is now richer than ever before and the opportunities for current school leaders are likely to be even greater than mine. When it all feels deeply difficult, remember that the struggle and challenge is what makes the job so great. It’s an enormous privilege to be allowed to do any of these roles. Embrace it!

It does, however, mean that school leaders have to retain a flexible mindset. If you want to lead in the multiple-school academy trust system, you will need to experience as many learning opportunities as possible. You cannot rely on using the same skills that made you a great Year 3 primary school teacher or geography teacher in a secondary when you become a headteacher.


You might have teacher DNA (though we are increasingly seeing people come to the CEO role from other backgrounds too), but if you want to work strategically across thousands of schools or hundreds of academy trusts, as I was lucky enough to do, you will need a whole new repertoire of tools and skills.

School leadership is becoming more exciting and challenging but it is also becoming a lifelong learning experience. Your current skills, whatever they are, may not be enough to sustain you until the end of your career.

System leadership

I have been asked many times to define system leadership. For me, being a system leader is best explained in this way. A system leader takes the right decision at the right time that benefits more children than you could ever reach in a single school.

The experience that many trust CEOs have acquired over years of practice equips them to find solutions to performance challenges that can be implemented at scale. Not being able to see the outcomes in classrooms on a daily basis matters less than getting the plan right and the team in place and then raising standards.

Multiple-school leadership roles – whether as a CEO, executive head, regional trust leader or director of education – are all system leadership roles. Leadership at this level, done well, has the potential to ensure that more children can enjoy a better education and preparation for adult life.

What are the skills and aptitudes that system leaders need?

The role of system leadership exists fundamentally to provide three capacity functions for the school system. Firstly, to provide oversight and take responsibility for school improvement at scale, especially where there may not be enough leaders wanting to work in the toughest schools.

Secondly, to identify, develop and coordinate the talent across a group of schools that enables improvement to take place.

Thirdly, to ensure that the combined endeavours of a collaborative approach deliver the impact needed. The role of the CEO fits perfectly into this definition but the skills and aptitudes needed are important to understand. Without wanting to oversimplify what is a complex role, I believe that the following core aptitudes are evident in the personal portfolios of the most effective system leaders we have:

Understanding change: system leadership is rarely about maintenance. The role of developing and improving a system means thinking differently about responding to existing challenges. Building a change pathway that sets the vision, builds capacity, engages people and produces effective outcomes is the responsibility of the system leader.

Understanding people: you cannot lead change at scale unless you can communicate with people. How you gain the support and approval of your board of trustees for a new strategy, how you explain to staff their role and the new ways you want them to work, and how you explain to parents and carers the implications of change for their children – these are all key considerations. Telling them is not enough. The system leader has to understand that change creates anxiety, and that implementation comes after hearts and minds have been won over.


Understanding resources: the system leader does not lead change in a vacuum. Being aware of the cost of change is a major part of making the change credible. Of course this relates to the financial affordability, but it also relates to how people utilise their time as well as deciding what part of the existing strategy is going to be suspended or abandoned to create space for something new.

Understanding capacity: change does not happen without the capacity to embed the concept and the new delivery model into the system that the CEO is responsible for. Capacity carries a cost, but it relies heavily on quality and talent to deliver value for money and time taken. Capacity linked to a talent management strategy means that the system leader has the agility to deploy talent to where it is needed most effectively. Without a talent map, the system leader runs the risk that too many people bring the ideas to the table, but too few turn them into a reality.

‘Leading Academy Trusts’ is available to buy from John Catt Educational.

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